The Fed’s QE2 is Over: Are we better off?

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Federal Reserve’s Ben Bernanke (Reuters)

At the end of the day, the Federal Reserve’s program to purchase $600 billion of medium term bonds, which has been dubbed QE2 – because it was the Fed’s second round of trying to lower interest rates by buying bonds, which in economic terms is called quantitative easing – did complete the task it was supposed to. Interest rates, i.e. borrowing costs, dropped. Since the start of the program last fall, mortgage rates dropped from to a recent 4.6%, from 5%. Corporations, too, are now able to borrow more cheaply than they did before the program was started.

Yet, most Americans didn’t see the pay off. Falling house prices and tight credit kept many people away from the housing market. Corporations didn’t seem to use the money they saved on borrowing to hire more workers, at least not recently. So we come to the end of QE2 and the economy seems to at best no better than when we started, and perhaps a bit worse.

So is a program that fulfills its tasks but doesn’t meet its goals a success or failure?

Recently, the Wall Street Journal asked its panel of economists to rate QE2. While the majority of them thought QE2 was a success, there was a surprising number of them (41%) thought QE2 was a failure. The WSJ compiled a list of winners and losers. Stocks, corporations and commodities came out ahead. Jobs and housing, as I mentioned above, seem not to be helped.

Dean Baker, a smart economist and the head of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, calls QE2 positive, but just not hugely positive. Anthony Sanders, an economics professor at George Mason e-mailed me to say that QE2 was a big failure because it benefited Wall Street, but not Main Street. And that may be right. But I don’t think it hurt Main Street either.

And I guess that’s where I come down on QE2. You can’t really call it a failure because I don’t think anyone was really worse off because of it, and at least a few things – our retirement savings boosted by stocks for one – did benefit. What’s more, no one is talking deflation these days, which is actually far worse than inflation. QE2 seems to have put an end to those worries.

So at the end of the day, QE2 really didn’t cost us anything. The Fed used the $600 billion in created to buy U.S. debt, so that really is a net zero. Some predicted that QE2 would cause massive disruptions in the bond market. Rates would plunge and then shoot back up when the program was over. But that didn’t really happen. Others said QE2 would cause massive inflation. But that really didn’t happen either. Yes, gas prices went up, but it’s hard to pin that on QE2.

Perhaps the thing that was the most damaged in QE2 was the Fed itself, or at least our estimation of what it can do. I don’t think the Fed’s reputation suffered much, and if so not sure how much that matters to the average citizen or corporate executive who’s buying decisions actually drive the economy. But what is clear now, in a way that wasn’t before QE2, is that the Fed’s power to revive the economy is limited at best. The policies that put money in the system and lower interest rates can only do so much. But then again this is probably a positive as well. It is clear now that if we want the economy to rebound faster then it is, the President and Congress are the ones that needs to step in and do more in terms of stimulus, either by spending money or cutting taxes. Helicopter Ben can’t do it alone. Perhaps now that we have learned that lesson, we can do what we need to do to get the economy back on track.